Death Has No Friends

"I mean they were not even normal murders... the man who is hounding us all to death is a hell-hound, and his power is from hell."
- Mr. Arnold Aylmer (G.K. Chesterton's The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926)
The Bath Mysteries (1936) is the seventh entry in E.R. Punshon's Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen series, which has an indefinable plot patterned after the infamous "Brides in the Bath Murders" from the 1910s and offered a brief glimpse at Owen's aristocratic side of the family – one of them who died under suspicious circumstances.

Bobby Owen is summoned to the ancestral seat of his kin and the opening chapter finds him assessing the place's "interminable and depressing length," which has become unaffordable as a permanent residence, but the reason for his summons had nothing to do with the family coffers. It concerns one of his cousins, Ronald "Ronnie" Owen, who vanished over three years ago.

The departure of Ronnie Owen coincided with a "disastrous and scandalous divorce case," after which "he had vanished from the ken of all his former friends and acquaintances," including Cora – his "justly offended wife." Owen seems to expect that Ronnie's drunken habit has finally caught up with him, but what is being revealed is far more serious and sinister than he could have possibly imagined. A woman who identified herself as the widow of man named Ronald Oliver, the presumed alias of Ronnie, pawned a signet ring that bore the family crest, which happened only a day after she collected 20,000 pounds from an insurance company. People had been murdered for far less in those days!

There is, however, one problem: the body of the man, who called himself "Ronald Oliver," died in a bathtub from "the effects of boiling water coming from a lighted geyser" that "pour continuously for a day and a half." He was boiled alive! The police assumed the victim wanted a bath to sober up and was overcome by the steam, which led to a verdict of "Death by Misadventure," but his actual widow, Cora, disagrees with this interpretation – believing he was murdered. So the family draws on their influence to put Bobby in charge of a discreet investigation.

It's not an easy or grateful task, because Bobby is fully aware that in an investigation "a time-lag of a few minutes is often of such importance as to make the difference between success and failure" and here there was an interval of months. And for "guilt there is no cloak like the lapse of time." However, that's not the only problem staring Bobby in the face: Ronnie had shuttered himself away in a small flat, cut off from his former life, which barely left anyone to interrogate.

A problem amplified when Bobby comes across several potential victims, lonely men "who had fallen or been thrown from their places in society" and "deliberately cut themselves entirely adrift," but, somehow, still had their lives insured for several thousands of pounds – which in those days amounted to a small fortune. It's not surprising Bobby begins to suspect he's up against "a kind of murder factory," but it's also where the book begins to diverge from your typical, 1930s Golden Age-style detective novel.

The plot of The Bath Mysteries is hard to define, because it consists of a lot of different elements: deceptively starting as a classic whodunit, but soon becoming more thriller-like with a conspiratorial nature that gives the story a sinister and unsettling touch. But underneath all of that, The Bath Mysteries is an early predecessor of the British police procedural. Instead of fretting about muddy footprints, cigarette buds and alibis, Bobby is pounding pavement and doing what looks like legitimate police-work, which can be experienced (when contrasted with the other elements) as dull and disappointing – because it's essentially routine police-work. There are also several characters who would feel quite at home in a modern-style crime novel by the likes of P.D. James or Reginald Hill: a woman trying to leave her life as a prostitute behind her, an ex-convict who mentally has never healed from a flogging he received in prison and an elderly, stick-fingered lady as old as she's experienced in evil. The book ends with these three characters as they find some redemption, which was a nice touch, but you have to read the book yourself to find out how.

Punshon really strayed away from the Golden Age here, but, from a historical perspective, it's an interesting predictive book that anticipated the crime novels and police procedurals of the post-World War II era. He did so in the mid-1930s! The only weakness is that he also anticipated that murderers would not be as well-hidden as they were during his days, which is a pity, but the upside is that the book can be used as lure to draw readers of contemporary crime stories to our side.

Speaking of historical content, The Bath Mysteries has one of the earliest references to the early days of television: Bobby is given a tour of a luxurious apartment and was "shown the television screen," but, "unfortunately," there was "no television programme on at the moment." You can watch a snippet of television from the year this book was published here. But I have prattled on long enough. I'll be back before long with a review of something slightly more orthodox. At least, I hope so. That was basically the plan when I picked up The Bath Mysteries to read.


  1. Thanks for the heads-up on this book. I will be getting a copy ASAP. Considering the pioneering nature of some of his work, and his favorable critical reception when he was active, it is odd that Punshon disappeared from view so completely. I suppose there is a moral there somewhere.

    I had a look in the 2nd edition of Barzun and Taylor, and I find they had only 3 references to him and all of them were completely negative, i.e., "to be avoided by all serious readers of the genre ..."; "Completely vacuous and forgettable ..."; "... thoroughly unsatisfactory ...". The reviews are very bad (but not as bad as the one they gave to Carolyn Wells's "The Mystery of the Sycamore,") but you would not want to try him on that basis either. I guess what this means is that regardless of the reputation of the review critic, you should keep an open mind and read for yourself. This is something I learned from Ray Bradbury's story "Usher II." People should not condemn books without reading them first.

    I also note that it seems to me there are very few sudden revolutions in the mystery field. All the various subgenres of the mystery, such as the police procedural, had deep roots before they really blossomed as the primary mode of telling a mystery story.

    1. It's pretty much the reason why I generally avoid critical, scholarly-type of secondary literature about the genre, because I still feel like only having scratched the surface of the genre and prefer to discover them for myself. However, I do appreciate reviews and tips from my fellow mystery addicts who are on the same journey. They read them for the same reason as I do: for fun. Scandalous, I know!

      About sudden revolutions, or lack thereof, probably has something to do with a period in time when publishers allowed mystery writers to hone their skills, build up an audience and were given time to mature and grow. So changes came about more organically (i.e. gradually).

      That seemed to change in the post-WWII world and a dominant monoculture of drearily "realistic," character-oriented crime novels arose, which, in turn, has given rise to a renaissance era when the internet offered a market place for the long-forgotten mystery novels of yore. Only a year, or so, ago, one of the most obscure writers from the Golden Era, J. Jefferson Farjeon, became a bestseller when one of his reprints sold over 50,000 copies!

      So I suspect (hope) that the gradual rediscovery of the Golden Age Detective novel over the past fifteen years will eventually lead to the rise of new crop of Western, neo-Golden Age writers. Just like in Japan! Here's hoping!

    2. I would not hold out too much hope for a renaissance of the fair play mystery in the West. The Japanese tend to hang onto their things; even Arsene Lupin is still a very popular character (in his animated Lupin III incarnation) in Japan. Conan Edogawa of Detective Conan is likewise in the traditional mode, as you can see from his name: Conan (from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and Edogawa (from Edogawa Rampo, which is in turn a transliteration of Edgar Allan Poe). Here in the West, we just throw things away, especially when they are hard to do. I see many historical mysteries: one of the attractions for the writer is that they don't have to know anything about the complex business of modern criminal investigation.

    3. I disagree: the room that the internet created for the rediscovery of classic mysteries can be used just as well as a market place for a potential future wave of Western neo-orthodox writers. Such a wave can easily come as a response to this current renaissance of Golden Age mysteries.

      So I'm staying optimistic!